In the weeks leading up to the Eagles' season opener, Dave Fipp had players stopping by his office to lobby for a spot in his stable of promising punt returners.
The team had one of the least-productive punt-return units in the league in 2019, but the addition of speed in the draft made the special-teams coordinator hopeful that this year would be different, and several players wanted to be a part of the change.
The faces might be slightly different, with rookie Jalen Reagor added to the fold, but the results are nearly identical. The Eagles ranked 25th with 5.9 yards per return last season, and they’re 26th with a 5.7 average through 10 weeks this year.
The combination of Reagor and Greg Ward, the duo the team settled on at the end of training camp, had a rough outing during the team’s 27-17 loss to the New York Giants last Sunday. Reagor chose not to field a 71-yard punt from Riley Dixon. The ball settled on the Eagles' 6-yard line. In the fourth quarter, Ward decided not to field a 48-yard punt that was downed at the Eagles' 5.
In a game where the Eagles started six of their 10 possessions inside their own 20, Fipp said the return man should have fielded the punt on both of those plays.
“That was unfortunate, obviously we gotta catch the football,” Fipp said. “I mean, we’ve got two good returners back there, those guys need to do a better job of fielding the ball. Obviously, in that situation, there was some wind and weather, and all that stuff factors into it. That being said, that’s their job and that’s why those guys are back there, to catch the ball. I still got a lot of confidence in those guys, I know they can do that.”
Reagor struck a slightly different tone regarding his choice not to field the 71-yard punt in the second quarter.
“It was just a great punt,” Reagor said. “How people look at it, they don’t know. I mean, yeah, people say I should have caught it or whatever, but if you look at where I would have caught it, it would probably have been in the same area.”
When asked what Fipp said to him, Reagor said the coach suggested to err on the side of caution when uncertainty creeps in.
“He said if you have any gray area, of course let the ball bounce,” Reagor said. “But he was like, ‘It would have been good to catch it,’ but y’all saw the game.”
Ward said there was no excuse for his decision, which likely cost the Eagles a few yards for a pivotal series in the fourth quarter.
“I definitely should have caught it, there’s no excuses,” Ward said. “I just have to do a better job of seeing the ball. I have to catch that one.”
Fipp said the windy conditions at MetLife Stadium could have contributed to Ward struggling to field the fourth-quarter punt, but that Reagor’s was a different case.
“I think [Ward] got caught up in a gust of wind and he didn’t feel comfortable catching the ball, so he didn’t," Fipp said. "Obviously, we’d rather have him catch that ball. ... I’d rather also have him let it go than muff the catch if he doesn’t feel comfortable with it. Now, that being said, we get paid to catch the football back there. We gotta do a better job of that. ...
"I think Jalen’s a little bit different factor. Obviously, the guy hit a bomb, went over his head, I think it was 61 yards in the air and then another 10 on the roll. We had a little bit more time -- anytime [they] kick it that far, you got a little bit more time to get back there and catch the thing; you don’t have gunners in your face because it’s a further punt.”
The Eagles' kickoff returns weren’t much better due to penalties. Boston Scott returned two kickoffs, but both were called back.
A holding call on Corey Clement in the second quarter pushed the Eagles back from their own 34-yard line to the 9. Later, Shaun Bradley was called for an illegal block that led to the Eagles starting the second half at their 16-yard line instead of the 28.
“Unfortunately, it seems like every time we have a decent return, we also have a penalty to go along with it,” Fipp said. “I thought there was a lot of good blocking on both those kickoff returns, and we had about nine guys doing a great job, and then, unfortunately, we had a couple of blocks that obviously are decisions that we just can’t do. I got to do a better job of putting these guys in better situations in practice and whatnot, but at the end of the day that definitely hurts us.”